Playlist 2017: 8th Commentary

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The next instalment of thoughts on my listening project for 2017. 87 items in, and I’ve not yet repeated a composer. Well, by this stage I’m not going to, am I? The full list and links to previous commentaries can be found here. Happy listening!

  • Peggy Glanville-Hicks, Concerto Romantico for viola and chamber orchestra (1956). Another interesting exercise in confronting my own prejudices: I have a hunch I came across some pieces for children by Peggy Glanville-Hicks in a pile of music being discarded from Southampton University Music Department from which students were invited to help themselves. I thus had her implicitly stereotyped as (a) a writer of simple things and (b) not worth keeping. Would I have assumed that music for children by a man represented the sum of his ambition? Not that I articulated this thought consciously, you realise, I just notice it when coming across major works and thinking, ‘Oh I didn’t know she wrote this stuff!’
  • Claudia Rusca, 'Jubilate Deo Omnis Terra' from I Sacri Concerti (1630). Ensemble Frottola have recorded quite a few of Rusca’s Sacri Concerti, so it’s worth a listen around.
  • Barbara Benary, Aural Shoehorning 1. Plainsong (1997). I find it fascinating the way this piece works both at the level of conceptual art, setting up an ongoing cognitive crunch, and as atmospheric music, allowing you to relax back into the soundworld and let it work on you.
  • Chiquinha Gonzaga, 'Ô abre alas!' (1899). Gonzaga seems to have been quite a character, widely disapproved for being a lone parent and professional musician, but nonetheless highly successful. Listening round available recordings of her work, it is interesting to hear some performed as classical/concert music (in terms of instrumentation and approach to timbre), and some performed as popular music. But the stylistic worlds of melody and harmony in both worlds are entirely consistent with one another.
  • Judith Weir, Airs from Another Planet (1986). Weir’s programme notes locate the concept for this piece squarely in a sci-fi/fantasy world, but I also love the Schoenberg reference in the title hiding in plain view for those of us who will get it.
  • Vítězslava Kaprálová, Piano Concerto (1935). This is what Kaprálová was producing when she was only 20 years old. Imagine if she had lived beyond the age of 25.
  • Vivan Adelberg Rudow, DEEPWATER HORIZON! Will We Sleep Again? (2011). I picked this piece for its title: what kind of music would this frame? It’s a fascinating listen – in some ways ‘easy’ in that it references all kinds of accessible musical idioms, but at the same time it makes the listener do a lot of the work to assemble these references into a gestalt, to extract, or maybe construct, meaning from their juxtaposition.
  • Delia Derbyshire, 'Sea' from The Dreams (1964). This is a compelling listen. Interesting to note that the PRS lists Derbyshire as the creator, but the Radio Times entry from when it was first broadcast only named her collaborator Barry Bermange.
  • Claudia Sessa, 'Occhi io vissi di voi' (1613). On reading up about this composer, I am struck as I so often am by the minimising rhetoric. The Wikipedia article claims she wrote two sacred works. Realistically, if she had two works published, she’d have been composing for some time already. And then her entry on the website of the publisher who distributes these works today is hardly what you’d call enticing advertising copy: ‘Though it displays some technical weaknesses, Sessa's work over the duration of her short lifetime has been described as sufficiently original and ambitious to place her on the roster of notable composers of her time.’ Again: described by whom, and why were they so snotty about it?
  • Elisabetta de Gambarini, Pieces Op.2 (1748). I am starting to wonder, as I read all these biographies of female composers that focus on their small-scale, ‘domestic’ works, while listing concertos and overtures in the works lists without commentary, whether the assessment of their oeuvre is being skewed by publication history. To be sure, it’s clear that in a lot of cases, it’s only the published works that have survived. But the language essentialises, implicitly attributing the simplicity of music sold for domestic consumption to a simplicity inherent in the composer.
  • Marie Jaëll (1826-1925), Piano Concerto Nº 2 (1884). Oh, this is a veritable masterclass in how to handle chromatic harmony. All the mystery and emotional flux you could want, executed with impeccable voice-leading.
  • Liza Lehmann, "Ah, Moon of my Delight," from In a Persian Garden (1896). For added historical interest, there are a goodly number of early recordings of this song, suggesting a currency of Lehmann’s work in the early years of the 20th century that makes her absence from standard histories of British music all the more egregious.

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